CARLSBAD MEMORIES: WHEN THE U.S. GRAND PRIX MATTERED
By Zapata Espinoza
With the famed SoCal hippie/surfer culture taking precedence in the early days of American motocross, the Trippe/Cox promoted Carlsbad USGP was equal parts serious venue for a professional sporting
event and a distant, motorized cousin to the famed Woodstock music festival on Max Yasgur’s farm. The perimeter of the hilly track was lined with long-haired guys, bikini clad girls and equally crazed motocross fans looking as much for good race action as a party atmosphere in the always hot sun.
The locals called it “The Rock” because the dirt was sun-burnt, California, abode clay. It was a blue groove track with enormous hills, high speeds and some incredibly awesome corners.
I have so many Carlsbad memories, not the least of which was enthusiastic fan Gary Chaidez sharing a beer with Bengt Aberg after the GP veteran’s bike broke on the notoriously fast Carlsbad Freeway uphill. But, nothing can match one of the greatest moments in American motocross lore?when hometown hero and LOP privateer Marty Moates delivered the knockout punch to the invaders in 1980.
I will always remember how fast the Carlsbad downhill was. I recalled a CMC race day, when I was a top 250 Intermediate, and was flying down the downhill in practice. I didn’t think it was possible to go any faster. I was in fourth gear, and I was cooking it, only to have Mike Bell pass me, and casually wave as he went by! But the memories of The Rock that I want to share today aren’t mine. They are from the men who survived racing at The Rock and loved it!
ROGER DECOSTER: HAVING A GOOD TIME WITH BAD RESULTS
Roger’s most famous Carlsbad quote, after one of his many disappointments, was, “I am doomed here!”
“I always liked going to Carlsbad and always wanted the challenge of trying to win it, but it never worked out, some of it because of some bad luck and some of them by my screw-ups. I think I had too many distractions from my desire to help to promote the race. Perhaps even more significant, I think that I set my bike up to work well in practice and not enough for how the track ended up by race time.
Suzuki teammates Roger DeCoster and Gerrit Wolsink.
“By comparison, my Suzuki teammate, Gerrit Wolsink, hung out at Gavin Trippe’s house, out by the pool having a good time. He was totally relaxed and rode around at an average pace. By the end of the day, anyone who was faster than Gerrit and really tried to win would mess up. Gerrit got the overall win five times because he had Carlsbad figured out!”
REX STATEN: MY KINGDOM FOR A MOTOR MOUNT
Rocket Rex was the last CZ rider to do well at the USGP. In the end, it was all for nought as he went from first to seventh when his motor mount broke.
“I was riding for Triumph/Suzuki of Pomona, and we had a pretty trick bike, but it was heavy. DeCoster’s Suzuki weighed 198 pounds, and my CZ hit the scales at 242 pounds. I holeshot the first moto and was going good, but Roger passed me. I passed him back. Even though Roger had the better bike, I had the advantage of being a local, and I knew how to ride the track.
“When Carlsbad got rough, you never rode it straight, you had to ride from bank to bank on the sides of the track. DeCoster was following behind me, and he thought I was totally out of control because I kept swerving from one edge of the track to the other, but that’s just how you rode the place. At that point I was leading, and it was great. I could feel the people hitting me and cheering me on as I rode by. I led that race until three laps from the end. I didn’t want to let up, but after the rear motor mount broke, I could hardly hold on because the bike was vibrating so bad. I think I ended up seventh in that moto and seventh overall.”
CHUCK SUN: A WIN DESPITE A DIRTY TRICK
1981 USGP winner Chuck Sun takes the checkered flag.
“Before I talk about my win in 1981, let me step back to 1979. I was riding the GP’s for Husky, and I came to the USGP that year and finished third overall?top American! But after the race, I got no attention from ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. So in 1981, it was sweet revenge to win it and get all the Wide World Of Sports coverage! The funny thing is that I almost didn’t even race?thanks to Marty Moates. I had stayed at Marty’s house the night before the race and, being the prankster that he was, he unplugged my alarm clock. When I woke up on race day everything at his house was really quiet. I jumped in my van, but got stuck in race traffic. I pulled over, unloaded my practice bike, grabbed my gear bag, and I rode to the track. Luckily, I had put my jersey on, because the security guard wasn’t going to let me in.
“When I finally got to the pits, I only had ten minutes before the first timed qualifier, and if I had missed it, the FIM would have disqualified me from racing?the guys from Honda were freaking out!
Chuck Sun rode his practice bike to the track on the day he won the USGP.
“As for the race, my secret was that I went in the opposite direction on the bike setup from everyone else. Carlsbad was as hard as concrete, and what worked for me was to set my suspension up with my sand track settings (with more rebound damping). Everyone else ran with soft settings, and that just made their bikes all wobbly. When you watch the film you can see Darrell Shultz get tired, and then his bike just launches him into the weeds! For a single event, winning the USGP was the biggest day in my career. It was a big deal also, because no one ever thought a guy from the Northwest who raced on the loam would do good on the baked clay of Carlsbad. But on that day I proved everyone wrong!”
GERRIT WOLSINK: THE MAN WHO OWNED THE RACE
“The first time to Carlsbad was actually in 1973 when I rode for Maico. My teammate, Willy Bauer, won that year. I liked California very much?the weather, the people and the track. From the first moment I arrived, I really enjoyed riding at Carlsbad. The layout was very interesting, and I thought the way the track conditions changed during the day was good, too. If you were smart, you could pick your lines, but to go fast at Carlsbad you had to have a fluid style, not stop-and-go.
“The next year, 1974, I returned and hung out with the race promoter, Gavin Trippe. Not only was that a lot of fun, but I think it helped me for the race by taking my mind off it a bit. Roger was always too busy with all his commitments and had so much stuff on his mind that I think it hurt his effort.
“Like everyone else, I had a problem with the heat. In the late 1970s, the European riders were more fit than the Americans, so even though we weren’t locals, I think our fitness was why we were more successful there. I also remember the importance of having a good race psychology. When everybody in the pits would be complaining about the heat, I would just be sitting there smiling and saying that it wasn’t so bad!
“Another tactic I used at Carlsbad was to find a spot on the track where I could relax, take a breath and then go hard again. I even practiced that in my training. My secret for the uphill was to always get set up for it two turns before I got to it. I would take the first left turn all the way on the outside in the loose stuff and then make the hard right on the inside before crossing over and ending up on the left side of the hill, where you could usually find a smoother line. I vividly remember people wondering where I was going with that line. I even built my own secret berm in practice to make it work. Then I would stay on the edge of the track, sit down and shift up.
“I would have to say that I was surprised that of all the Americans, it was Marty Moates who was the first to beat the European riders. It was amazing that if we couldn’t win that it would be a guy like Marty. I think Brad Lackey was the most frustrated by it!”
DANNY CHANDLER: ON BEING THIRD AMERICAN
Magoo won the 1982 USGP because he used up all of his tear-offs on the first lap and “had to get to the front as fast as possible.”
“I had grown up watching the USGP on Wide World of Sports. Even as a young kid, one of my goals was to be the first American to win it. My first time I raced the USGP at Carlsbad was in 1980. I rode a four-stroke that Kelvin Franks made for me. I finished somewhere in the top 20. That was the year that Marty Moates won, so I knew right then that the best I could do would be the second American to win the USGP. It’s funny, but deep inside I knew that my day to win was still to come.
“In 1981, I rode a Maico 490 and didn’t do well. That was the year that Chuck Sun won, so after the race I figured that my place in history was to be the third American to win the race.
Danny “Magoo” Chandler wasn’t afraid of anything. We take that back. Magoo was deathly afraid of, and allergic to, bee stings.
“In 1982, Carlsbad was muddy. It had rained the night before, and I was happy about that because I knew I rode very well in the mud. I has already won some AMA Nationals that year, and I was on the big Honda works bike, so I knew I had the speed and machinery. On the day of the race, I was feeling pretty good about my chances.
“When the gate dropped for the first moto, I got a midpack start and got hammered by this big mudhole. On the first lap of the race, I had blown through all my tear-offs. I knew I had to get to the front as fast as possible if I was going to win. I was going pretty fast and made it all happen.
“In the second moto I rode like a lady. I pulled a typical Magoo and crashed. Then I got up and crashed again. I got so mad at myself for throwing away my best chance to win. Luckily, Brad Lackey got passed by Andre Vromans, and I ended up going 1-5, which was good enough for the overall win. I was really excited about that, but I was also upset that Andre Malherbe had crashed and broke his leg earlier in the day, because I had really wanted a piece of him!
“I thought Carlsbad was great. All the American fans would come and cheer us on. You could tell that the tide had changed and that the American riders were the fastest riders. Personally, I had been training and eating right to be prepared for that race and for going up against the European riders. I’d been burning five gallons of gas a day, and not just five gallons in a day, but within three hours. That was how my dad raised me—you had to burn the five gallons against the clock for it to do any good, and on that day at Carlsbad, it did me some good.”
DAVID BAILEY: DETERMINED TO WIN
When David Bailey wasn’t the fastest rider on the track, he made up for it by being the smartest. David won the USGP in 1985.
“I was really motivated to win in 1985 after what happened the year before when I was leading both motos and had problems. In fact, I distinctly remember the moment after I crashed in the second moto in 1984 while leading when I told myself I would win the following year.
“Like a lot of others, I had a Ph.D on the USGP from watching Wide World of Sports every year. I knew all about Wolsink winning, DeCoster struggling, Darrell Shultz crashing, Moates making history and Mike Bell almost passing out. There was no talk at all about team tactics, the Euros or anything. I was there to win in 1985, and I didn’t care about the GP points battle or anything else.
“In the first moto, I got the start and saw Broc Glover go down out of the corner of my eye. I was in third behind Andre Malherbe and Georges Jobe. I decided to sit tight and let them tire each other out with their own battle before making the effort to get them. I remember thinking that O’Mara was probably watching me and wondering why I was just cruising, but I was on cruise control, really. All of a sudden, I saw Glover behind me, he came from last to fourth, and he was really flying. I stepped on it and ended up winning. Broc got second, and I knew I’d have to worry about him in the second moto.
“I remember it being 103 degrees in the back of the box truck, and there were a lot of distractions with ABC, so I wasn’t able to focus all that well on the next moto. When I was walking up the hill to the start line, I didn’t have an umbrella because I wanted to be the tough guy, but half way up I got light-headed and started seeing stars. Right away, I started to wonder if I’d eaten or drank enough between motos. When I finally got to the start line, there was Broc under an umbrella wearing that bright pink gear he’d worn at the Superbowl. Right away, I thought, ?Great, Broc’s brought a gun to the fight, and all I had was a flimsy plastic knife!’
“I got a good start, and out of the first turn, I became totally focused on beating Broc. I knew Broc liked to go fast at the beginning of a race, and I figured if I could just interrupt his rhythm, it would be good for me. I let him have a small lead and gambled on getting him back in the last ten minutes of the 45-minute moto. But then Broc slid out in Rattlesnake Gulch. As I passed him, we looked at each other for a split second. To me, it felt like an hour-long stare-down! I figured by the time he got going again, he’d be the one seeing stars, so I pinned it and went hard to the finish for the overall win.
“I always think about Carlsbad as being a terrible place to race. They’d always pour the Pacific Ocean on the track in the morning, and then in the afternoon the track would be rock-hard. The bumps were still there from when Wolsink won it the first time, the bleachers were sagging, and there were weeds everywhere?the place was a dump. But, once you were racing at the USGP, all that went away. They hung the banners, the crowd poured in and the whole experience was transformed. In fact, I look back on racing the USGP with as much affection as I do the Gaildorf MXDN. To race the USGP was a privilege.”
BROC GLOVER: WAS IT BETTER AS A SPECTATOR?
“The first time I raced the USGP was in 1981, and as I sat on the starting line, I remember thinking back to all the years when I was there as a kid staring through the fence as a spectator.ÿÿ “In 1983, I dueled with Hakan Carlqvist, and we split the moto wins. Since I had won the second moto, I thought I had won the overall, but what I didn’t know was that the FIM scored the overall win based on aggregate time, and I lost out to Carlqvist by almost nothing. The one good thing that came from that was that for the next year, ABC Sports said that they would not cover the race unless they were able to know who the winner and loser was as soon as the flag fell in the second moto. That didn’t do me any good for 1983, but it forced the AMA and FIM to make the change.
Broc Glover had local knowledge and the ability to do the fastest flying lap off the start of any man alive. He won the USGP in 1984.
“The USGP was definitely a special race because of the Wide World of Sports coverage, the Japanese mechanics, the foreign languages and the exotic works bikes from Europe. Still, on a scale of one to ten, Carlsbad was always about a one on execution and a ten on potential. I think I have better memories of the race as a spectator than I do as a racer!”
MIKE BELL: MOTO WINS & HEAT PROSTRATION
Mike Bell takes the smooth line at Carlsbad.
“Carlsbad was a track I rode on all the time. My first race there for the USGP was in the 250cc Support Class in 1976. I was racing a Honda, and the rear shocks came apart on the downhill. And you remember how fast that downhill was—it was scary fast! I probably don’t have to tell you how the bike was working, as it catapulted me over the bars!
“The following year was a big deal because I got to ride my first works Yamaha. I had a truck and a mechanic, but I wore a DG jersey and ran DG stickers on the bike in the Support class. I won that day over Scott Gillman. That was a great month because a few weeks later I raced in my first-ever Supercross at the L.A. Coliseum and finished fourth.
“In 1978, I finally got to race the 500 class, and I ended up third overall. I remember coming up on Roger DeCoster in the second moto and being scared to be following him. In fact, I preceded to get too comfortable until my mechanic, Dave Osterman, showed me the pit board, then asked what the heck I was doing. So I took another lap to think about where I could pass Roger in the most respectable and safest way. I squared him off in the horseshoe, and that pass changed my life!
“In 1979, I had a 45-second lead in the first moto, but had to pull off with two laps to go because I had heat prostration. It was about 106 degrees out, and when I pulled off I didn’t even know where I was or how I got there!
“It was a dream come true to race the USGP. The international flair, the helicopters flying low overhead as you crested the uphill, getting interviewed by Jackie Stewart and Sam Posey for Wide World of Sports,’ the factory bikes, the crowd and everything.”
RICK JOHNSON: THE LAST WINNER AT CARLSBAD
Ricky Johnson says that this 1986 start was one of the best of his career. He rounded the first turn alone.
…and was still alone when the next photo was snapped.
“My earliest memories of Carlsbad actually started when I was in the third grade and dad took me to the USGP. I ran all over the track and wanted to see every part of it—the jumps, the uphill and the mudholes. Afterwards, I wrote a school report about how when I grew up I wanted to race CZ’s like Rex Staten. My next memory involved me crashing my XR75 down the downhill and losing almost all my skin. From that day on, I was scared of downhills, but as I got older, I knew I’d have to race on them, so I made them my strength. That Carlsbad hill was scary fast. The only other downhill that was as scary as Carlsbad was Banzai Hill at Saddleback.
“In 1981, I won my first 125 National moto at Carlsbad, and winning a moto in my rookie year at my home track was such an unbelievable feeling!
“Finally, in 1986 I won the USGP. I remember it being that perfect day which is so rare with motocross. On the start line, I had all the confidence I needed, because it was my home track, I knew every line and I had done all the necessary training to last the 45-minute moto. Besides winning both motos, that start I got was so great, it was almost surreal. It was probably one of the two best starts I had in my career. The track was groomed, my bike was hooking up, and there was nobody with me. In fact, it was so quiet it was kind of eerie.
“Carlsbad made a man out of you because the conditions could be so hard. In practice, it would be a quagmire. The bumps were huge, and by the end of the day, it was blue-groove hard. The funny thing about racing the USGP by then was that the atmosphere for the American riders had switched from the days before Moates won it. Americans weren’t the underdogs anymore, so by 1986 it was like, we better beat the Europeans or we’re idiots! We had to beat them!”
WINNERS OF THE 500 USGP AT CARLSBAD
1973… Willy Bauer
1974… Gerrit Wolsink
1975… Gerrit Wolsink
1976… Gerrit Wolsink
1977… Gerrit Wolsink
1978… Heikki Mikkola
1979… Gerrit Wolsink
1980… Marty Moates
1981… Chuck Sun
1982… Danny Chandler
1983… Hakan Carlqvist
1984… Broc Glover
1985… David Bailey
1986… Ricky Johnson